Retire or not? That's the number

Some numbers are retired... sort of - Some are not... sort of

23.02.2008
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Player legend Wayne Gretzky with Team Canada. Photo: HHoF

TORONTO - When Patrick Roy was traded by Montreal in early 1995, it was the end of a bitter feud between the star goalie and his coach, Mario Tremblay. Roy was in the prime of his career and went on to win two more Stanley Cups with Colorado, but he will always be remembered as "Saint Patrick" for his incredible play in the springs of 1986 and 1993 which gave the Canadiens two very improbable championships. Yet because of his bitter departure, it is unlikely Roy's number 33 will be raised to the rafters of the Bell Centre any time soon. However, no player has worn 33 since Roy's departure.

This is just one of several stories which revolve around a player's career with a team and the sometimes political - or superstitious - motives for a sweater number being "unofficially" retired. Or not.

Take Guy Carbonneau. After more than a decade with the Canadiens, where he was one of the best two-way forwards (also called checking forward), he finished his career in Dallas, playing from 1995 to 2000. He became so popular in Texas, and helped the team to the 2000 Stanley Cup, that fans petitioned his former teammate and the Stars' GM, Bob Gainey, to retire Carbo's 22. Gainey didn't, but the team has never issued another 22 jersey.

On a sadder note, after the death of Dan Snyder in Atlanta, the Thrashers, of course, have not given number 43 to anyone else. But players, respectful and superstitious, surely will never wear the number even if the team wanted. Snyder was hardly a superstar, so he didn't warrant the honour of a number retirement based on play, but the tragedy affected everyone on the team and around the league, so number 43 is, in effect, retired.

The courage of John Cullen is one reason no one has used number 12 in Tampa Bay since he retired in 1999. Cullen battled back from cancer to return to the NHL, albeit briefly, a truly heroic message to all cancer patients that it is a disease that can be beaten.

Death led to another unofficial retired number two decades ago. Goalie Pelle Lindbergh was killed in a car accident after having a great start to his career in Philadelphia, and although his number 31 does not hang in the rafters of the Flyers, the number was taken out of circulation by the team and will never be worn again.

Although Dominik Hasek left the Sabres to sign as a free agent with Detroit, in 2001, his number 39 has not been re-issued by the Sabres and it will likely be retired once the Dominator has retired for good. One thing no team ever does is retire a player's number while he is still active with another team.

At the other end of the spectrum are players who leave acrimoniously, like Roy, but whose number is quickly put back into use by the team as a show of loyalty to the team, not the departing player. Take Scott Niedermayer in New Jersey. He signed with Anaheim in 2005, but Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey immediately gave Niedermayer's number 27 to Barry Tallackson as a way of forgetting about Niedermayer's contribution instantly. Forget about the three Stanley Cups the "great Scott" helped the Devils win. As soon as he left the team, those accomplishments were history. Of course, it is a deep insult in one way, but a clear message to the current roster that great players who leave are no longer considered great players within the organization.

Some teams honour their predecessors' numbers, some don't. The Quebec Nordiques retired Peter Stasny's number 26, in recognition of a great career, but as soon as the team moved to Colorado, the number was available again and Stephane Yelle claimed it. Yet, the Phoenix Coyotes continue to honour Bobby Hull's 9 from the Winnipeg Jets. The only player who has used 9 with the Coyotes was son, Brett, in honour of his father. And then there's Dino Ciccarelli's number 20. By rights, the Minnesota North Stars should have retired his number formally. Instead, they only took it out of circulation, but as soon as the team moved to Dallas, number 20 became available again.

Of course, no one will ever wear number 16 with Detroit in memory of Vladimir Konstantinov, who suffered horrible injuries after the Wings' Cup win in 1997. But what about number 22 of St. Louis? This was used in 2003-04 by Mike Danton, whose career effectively ended when he was sent to jail for trying to have his agent, David Frost, killed. No matter to Jeff Hoggan, who took 22 in 2005-06 after the lockout.

There are other numbers which have never been used since the famous wearer retired but which have yet to receive formal honour by the team. Eric Lindros's 88 with Philadelphia, Ryan Smyth's 94 with Edmonton, Joe Thornton's 19 with Boston. And what about numbers that should be retired but aren't? Mike Gartner wore number 11 with Washington for a decade, scoring 35 goals every season but one, including one 50-goal season. The Capitals have retired Rod Langway's number 5, Yvon Labre's number 7, and Dale Hunter's 32. Only Langway is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, as is Gartner.

And what about Scott Mellanby's 27 with Florida? Their captain for several years, including the stunning trip to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals, he is the most important player in the team's history to date (excepting current captain, Olli Jokinen), yet only a year and a half after being traded to St. Louis, the number was being worn by the less-accomplished Jaroslav Bednar.

And then there is the greatest of them all. Wayne Gretzky's 99 was retired by the Oilers, Rangers, and Kings, and the NHL made his the first number to be retired league-wide. Yet, unofficially, Gretzky is the first athlete in the world to have his number retired virtually around the world. No one has used 99 at the Olympics, World Championships, World Junior Championships, even World Women's Championships since he retired, and no player in a major European league has used 99 since, either. The uniqueness of the number, and the respect that goes with it, are far too important for any player to tarnish 99 with non-Gretzky-like qualities. There is, after all, only one Gretzky.

In truth, you just never know. Numbers are mysterious things. Some are obviously associated with only one player; some are less so. Some players have earned the respect that goes with a night of honour; some only deserve and "out of circulation" honour according to the team. Regardless, every number tells a story, and the NHL has thousands of them!

Notebook:
  • The only number retired this season so far has been Brian Leetch's 2 (New York Rangers).
  • Next up for the Rangers will be Adam Graves (9).
  • Last year, there were seven numbers hoisted to the rafters - Mike Vernon, 30, Calgary; Steve Yzerman, 19, Detroit; Mark Messier, 11, Edmonton; Luc Robitaille, 20, Los Angeles; Serge Savard, 18, Montreal; Ken Dryden, 29, Montreal; Brett Hull, 16, St. Louis.
  • Toronto, which doesn't retire numbers but "honours" them, held ceremonies last season for Red Kelly's 4 and Borje Salming's 21 (the number stays in circulation, but it is also raised to the rafters).

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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